EPOPE: Advancing Our Understanding of Phytoplanktonic Communities and Harmful Algal Blooms with Biosensors

By Microbia Environnement, in partnership with Surfrider Foundation Europe, Ikosistama, AsOcéan, IFREMER

MICROBIA 2019Global climate change, pollution from diverse sources and resource overexploitation, are clearly recognized as serious threats for aquatic ecosystems(1). Despite the warnings from the scientific community and the increasing concern of people in many countries, acting now to preserve the water resource, to secure the water quality and to limit the loss of biodiversity represents a major challenge for human populations, all over the world.

In the last decades, among the most impacted ecosystems, marine coastal areas have suffered from a drastic modification of their biodiversity. This includes the phytoplankton community, i.e., autotrophic microorganisms at the basis of the trophic network and essential for CO2 sequestration, with a general loss and decline of its biodiversity. As main effect, this led to a decrease of the primary production and imbalances between flora and fauna communities. Another noticeable change is the rise of exotic species, such as tropical microalgae or new toxigenic cyanobacteria as observed in the Mediterranean Sea(2). Some of these microorganisms can proliferate to the extent of the rest of the biotope in so-called ‘Harmful Algal Blooms’ (HABs) responsible for eutrophication and/or toxin release. Toxins can directly affect humans in bathing or recreative areas with more or less severe effects (skin irritations, diarrhea…), and indirectly by consumption of sea products (shellfish, fish, crustaceans)(3). As regards to the increasing threat of HAB for public health, tourism or aquaculture production, it is crucial to improve current monitoring and warning systems.

equipe biocapteursThe EPOPE project aims at providing such innovative solutions by the implementation of molecular biosensors capable of high-sensitivity and high-specificity detection of microalgae and cyanobacteria known to impact coastal ecosystems. The first objective of the study is to target cyanobacteria originating from freshwater through river run-offs, to estimate their activity trends and their resilience in the Mediterranean Sea. The second objective is to track and follow the activity of emerging microalgae species such as Gambierdiscus sp and Karlodinium sp.

A partnership consortium gathering different levels of analysis (sampling methodology, environmental multiparametric measurements, taxonomic analysis and genetic biosensors) will provide integrated information to develop prediction models. Regarding the genetic biosensors, the proposed approach includes the deployment of existing and already approved sensors targeting four groups of cyanobacteria (Microcystis sp, Anabaena sp, Dolichospermum sp, Aphanizomenon sp) and two groups of marine microalgae (Alexandrium sp, Pseudo-nitzschia sp). New biosensors will be also designed specifically for three emerging microalgae groups of critical concern: Karlodinium sp., Ostreopsis sp. and Gambierdiscus sp., for a direct validation and use on sites of interest.

BeachCleanupBanner e1425518444307With appropriate sampling frequency, in partnership with passionate people such as the Surfrider Foundation Europe who are working hard all year long for the analysis and the protection of marine biodiversity, the biosensors will provide near real time data that will be easily correlated to adverse effects provoked by human activities, the final goal being to propose a sustainable risk management of the Mediterranean coastal environment.

In 2021, most water quality labels are already taking in account water quality as a major indication tool, and tourism will be described more and more often with environmental criteria; not only that, but authorities will be gradually forced to implement rules or recommendations coming from EU, or national contexts.

The EOPOE project will create an unprecedented monitoring and anticipation methodology to support local authorities and water resource managers responsible of vulnerable areas in taking actions. Ideally, the EPOPE project outcomes will raise the public awareness and show that solutions based on innovative and disruptive technologies exist, and that limiting our impact on biodiversity erosion is possible.

This article is part of an online series dedicated to the UN Ocean Decade. One story will be published each week that is related to initiatives, new knowledge, partnerships, or innovative solutions that are relevant to the following seven Ocean Decade outcomes. Access the special digital issue dedicated to the Ocean Decade here.


  1. Micheli et al, 2013
  2. UNEP/MAP 2012, Beaugrand et al. 2010, Berdalet et al. 2016, Gobler et al. 2017, McCabe et al. 2016, Paerl 2016
  3. Merel et al, 2013

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